history.gif (1327 bytes) St. John's Lutheran Church

Sesquicentennial Celebration

Perry County News
April 16, 1998

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Planning for any celebration takes time.   Weddings, anniversaries, graduations -- all take weeks or months of preparation, often for events lasting only one day.

Consider then the tasks facing members of St. John's Lutheran church.  The Evanston congregation has already been at work for 18 months planning for a year-long celebration marking the sesquicentennial of the church's founding in 1850.

Though ceremonies kicking off the celebration are still well over a year away, members of a special committee are busy at work dusting off century-old church records and filing through pictures of Confirmation and Vacation Bible School.

The largest project under way now is the gathering and cataloging of early church records.  Like many other communities and churches, the minutes of St. John's church council meetings and notes by pastors were drafted in German longhand -- beautiful to look at but difficult to decipher, even for those knowing German, said Shirley Puertzer, one of the committee's eight members.

The task of translating the German text has been given to Marilyn Nathan.  The Orange County German teacher learned the art of reading the slanted German script from her grandmother.  "She was worried the day would come when nobody would be able to read the Old German," Puertzer said.

Archives from the Lutheran congregation, a member of the Missouri Lutheran Synod, hold far more than baptismal and confirmation dates from the 1850s on, said Puertzer.  While important, the records also include a treasury of genealogical information on its first families, including parents' names and places of birth.  "A lot of them even list a specific city back in Germany," she said.

Proof of the church's deep-running ethnic roots, German continued to be the nearly exclusive language far after other groups deferred to English.  Surprisingly, consistent English is not found until 1943.  "It's nothing but German up until then," Puertzer said.

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Translated church records may seem like dry reading to some, but between the lines are interesting and occasionally eyebrow raising comments over the deeds and misdeeds of churchgoers and resulting censures and even occasional excommunications.

Members of the church who became involved in scandal or sinned publicly were warned by pastors and leaders to mend their ways.  If repeated warnings were ignored, the offender was publicly denounced at the Sunday service and declared severed from the church and its activities.  "They did it right from the pulpit," said Puertzer.

Common for the time, the local church became the place for settling disputes among family members or neighbors, even when the topic seems by today's standards not to be a religious issue.

Not all of the early comments concern those in the pews.  On mention of alleged misconduct by a pastor is made boldly in English, perhaps hoping German readers wouldn't understand it and helping to keep the scandal under wraps.  Little did they know that those coming after them would have the same reaction to their use of German.

Nathan has returned the first set of translated material back to the committee and is working on a second set of church records.   Plans are to offer a compilation of the translations in an updated sesquicentennial history booklet.  "We hope it gives (church members) more of an idea of our church's heritage," Puertzer said.  "There's a lot there to be uncovered."

Church Steeped In History

The forested hills and fertile bottom of eastern Spencer County and western Perry County were becoming home to a growing number of families in the mid 1800s, among them many of Lutheran faith.  Some had moved from points east, following the Ohio River westward.  Others were newcomers to America, having immigrated from Europe.  They spoke German.

As the number of settles grew, so did sentiment toward establishing a church of their own.  On June 24, 1846, a 40-acre tract of land just west of New Boston was purchased by trustees of St. John's German Evangelical Lutheran Church from a local Lutheran family, George and Ann Elizabeth Puertzer.

In June 1850 the church received its constitution from the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Built under the pasorale of the Rev. Eppling, the first church used by the congregation was a small log building with neighbor steeple nor bell.

A new school building was soon constructed, continuing a long tradition of the church education its young people.

In 1853, a parsonage was built.  Also in the same year, St. John's joined the Missouri Lutheran Synod, in part through Eppling's efforts.

Eppling left the young congregation in 1858, deciding to take the help of St. James Church in Dubois County.  His departing words, translated by Marilyn Nathan from original records, talk about the joys of leading the church.  "The congregation was very fond of its pastor and the Lord's Word created in time its visible fruit."

Eppling also talked of the conditions encountered in living in the first school building before the parsonage was built.  "The house was located in the brush and the winds howled around it through the trees, while cows camped in front of the door.  No out comfort made life easy."

With the congregation's numbers growing in the years after the Civil War, the decision was made in 1873 to build a new church.  The old log church was replaced by a 60 feet by 30 feet structure dedicated in 1874, complete with steeple and bell.

The church celebrated its golden anniversary in 1900.  A new school house was dedicated in 1905 and would serve the congregation until closing in 1954.  A Ladies Aid Society was also organized in the early 1900s, a group whose work continues today.

The church continued to grow in the coming decades.  In 1952, more than 100 members of the Evanston congregation, most living in or near Tell City, dedicated the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tell City.

While undergoing a renovation of its interior, the frame church was completely destroyed by a fire on Jan. 30, 1963.  Worship services for the next 18 months were held at Emmanuel Lutheran in Tell City.  A vigorous building campaign funded construction of a new brick church, fellowship hall and classroom area.

The new church, seating 300, was dedicated in 1964.  The original cross from the old church was preserved from the flames and utilized in the new structure.

St. John's today has approximately 380 baptized members.  The Rev. Jeffrey Stuckwisch currently serves as pastor.